Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Awkward Age" by Francesca Segal

Ah, family drama. What would we do without you? I'm just glad none of these issues happened on The Brady Bunch (although apparently some of the shenanigans were occurring backstage)!

It has been a number of years since Julia Alden's husband died, leaving her with a young daughter, Gwen. Julia and Gwen have been an inseparable duo, weathering life's problems and enjoying adventures together, just the two of them. But now Julia has fallen in love with James, an American OB/GYN who has made his home in England for years. James has awakened Julia's passions—for life, love, sex, and security—things she figured she'd never find again.

The two plan to merge their lives and their households together, and receive nothing but enthusiastic support from James' daughter as well as Julia's inlaws, a couple which has their own interesting relationship. The roadblock? Gwen, now 16, completely dislikes James, and can't even deign to keep her hatred a secret. Not only does she resent the fact that her mother has found happiness again and (as she sees it) abandoned her, she now has to share her house with James and his egotistical, 17-year-old son, Nathan.

Every day is an emotional minefield for the blended family. But after a Thanksgiving trip to James' Boston hometown, Gwen and Nathan begin to see each other in a different light. It's not long before the new relationship turns the household upside down, bringing drama and recrimination, and severely testing Julia and James' relationship.

"How was it possible that one spoiled, angry teenager had wrested control of all their lives?"

Even as your children grow to adulthood, are you expected to sacrifice your own happiness for their sake? Should your loyalty always lie with your own child, even if it might cause stress in your own romantic relationship? How much, and for how long, should you owe your child for a difficult childhood? Does honesty really mean telling the person you love everything you feel, even if it's about their child?

The Awkward Age is an interesting look at these questions. It's a take on modern relationships, gender roles, and how often the things we don't say to one another can cause the most damage. The book definitely has a soap opera-esque feel, even veering into melodrama, and at times I wanted to shake some of these characters to get them to be sensible.

I absolutely loved Francesca Segal's first novel, The Innocents (see my original review), an interpretation of The Age of Innocence set in a Jewish suburb of London. Segal created fascinating characters and a plot you couldn't tear yourself away from.

I didn't feel as if she succeeded as well with The Awkward Age. I thought the first part of the book, which dealt with Julia and James' growing relationship and how everyone around them reacted, was really interesting, but once the melodrama began it lost a bit of its appeal. Perhaps the plot was realistic, but everyone just acted so unpleasantly and dodged around the elephant in the room for so long, I wished I could have walked into the story and set everyone straight.

Segal is an excellent writer, and there is a lot to like about this book. Her characters, while irritating, are really well-drawn. (I found Julia's inlaws and James' ex-wife fascinating.) I just wish this book was less dramatic and more contemplative, because when her storytelling does the talking, the reader definitely wins. (P.S.: Definitely read The Innocents!)

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